The skeleton of a ‘muscular’ woman who lived 5,900 years ago and had bulging forearms has been discovered in what is now Nicaragua.
Archaeologists say the rare discovery is the oldest known burial in Lower Central America.
The ancient human remains were buried in a shell mound 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) below the ground’s surface with her legs flexed towards her stomach.
According to scientists, the adult woman had ‘strongly developed musculature of the forearm, possibly from rowing or similar activities’. The analysis showed pronounced marking and ridges on the bone, indicating strong muscles.
Tropical places like Nicaragua don’t usually preserve human remains well but scientists believe that the shell mound under which the woman was buried reduced the acidity of the soil.
Mirjana Roksandic, a professor of anthropology at the University of Winnipeg in Canada, told LiveScience: ‘Ancient people created shell mounds for a number of reasons, including to bury their dead or to mark the landscape.’
Professor Roksandic and her team had originally been studying the ancient people of Cuba but got a tip from an anthropologist that they should investigate the area, known as the Angi spot in Monkey Point, southern Nicaragua.
‘I was delighted and went there right away to visit the site and examine the burial,’ Professor Roksandic added.
The spot was originally excavated in the 1970s but the female remains weren’t found until recently.
After anthropologists located the skeleton, they got permission from the indigenous communities to continue their work.
The woman was uncovered in an oval pit on her back with both her arms by her side and her legs tucked in towards her stomach.
An analysis revealed that the woman was an adult, but not particularly old — likely between 25 and 40 years old. And she wasn’t that tall; the woman stood 4 feet, 11 inches (150 centimeters) tall, which is short by Northern American and Northern European standards, “but not by the standards of Central America or other Southern populations,” Roksandic noted.
Despite the woman’s small stature, she had “strongly developed musculature of the forearm — possibly from rowing or similar activities,” Roksandic said. Even today, local people are adept rowers.
“While we were in the village of Bankukuk Taik, [study co-researcher] Harly Duncan introduced us to a Rama elder who rowed that very day for 4 hours to visit family,” Roksandic said. “She was 82 years old. Kids as young as 9 rowed around Rama islands in a dugout.”
Moreover, like other people who eat a fair amount of shellfish, the woman had extensive wear on her teeth, Roksandic said.
Professor Roksandic says that little is known about the ancient indigenous cultures of lower Central America and that further study of the site is necessary.
Ancient people who bury the dead among shell mounds are often fishers, gatherers and horticulturalists, according to Professor Roksandic.
She said that it is not possible to ascertain the reason why the burial took place there or the particular significance of this woman.
The study concluded that the individual demonstrates the importance of the site for understanding the early history of lowland Central America and the urgent need for its protection and further evaluation.
In the anthropology world, time is of the essence, as Monkey Point will soon be affected by the construction of the Nicaraguan canal and other developmental projects, Roksandic said.
The woman’s remains are currently housed in the CIDCA Historical Cultural Museum of the Caribbean Coast, the researchers said. The local communities, which are working with anthropologists on how to preserve their heritage, will decide what happens to her next.
The study was published online in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.